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The Silver Of Paul Revere
Why is the name of Paul Revere so popular when equally skilled silversmiths are only known to museums and collectors? Perhaps because unlike other craftsmen Paul had a press agent in Longfellow. The poem that immortalized his ride, also made famous his name. His father, Apollos Rivoire, a Huguenot, had come to this country and been apprenticed to John Coney, a famous silversmith and said to have been the best Boston ever produced. The family name, Rivoire, was changed to the English version, Revere, since Apollos was working for an Englishman.
The son Paul was born in Boston in 1735. Apprenticed to his father, who had learned his craft well with Coney, he was able at nineteen, upon his father's death, to take over the shop. The Reveres were important in Boston and like other silversmiths were active in civic affairs. Paul as a youth joined the local artillery and served against the French at Crown Point in the French and Indian War. After the Revolution, he came back to the silver shop and worked at his craft. He was not only an expert smith but also a skilled engraver and one of the few craftsmen who could complete a piece of silver, even to the engraved decoration. Many museums have examples of his work and every visitor interested in old silver wants to see them. Paul Revere worked best in the classic tradition of Adam. His lovely tea and coffee pots usually have graceful engravings of festoons and swags, and the finials are beautifully wrought, sometimes in pineapple form.
In Revere's time many silversmiths were using the china pieces of the day as models. It was the period of the tall Liverpool pitcher which Revere copied so well in his famous water pitchers, some of them plain, some engraved. Chinese Export Ware, often miscalled Chinese Lowestoft, was then in fashion and Revere copied the small, stylized, helmet pitcher in silver.
He made bowls of all sizes, some with inscriptions historically valuable today. It takes a real craftsman to make a perfect bowl and Revere was able to make decoration an intrinsic element of each piece, for he was a master of subtlety. His best pieces are simple and restrained and perhaps that was the secret of their popularity. Revere lived only until 1818 and so escaped designing when popular demand would have required over ornamentation, which doubtless would have disturbed him greatly.
By 1800 the classic style had reached its height in America. Architecture, furniture, and silver were made in the simple and delicate designs that had originated with the Adam brothers in London. These designs seemed to fit the young country because they seemed to match it. The vogue continued through the first quarter of the century. Then came the end of the period of really good design in American silver. A new and disturbing element overtook the work of even the best craftsmen. There was a reason for this, just as there was a reason for the early designs of silver spoons, the small teapots, and. the decorations in the classic styles. That was the Machine Age which began an upset that is still in process.
During the first quarter of the nineteenth century most of the distinguished craftsmen were aging or had retired or had died. Although new men were still trained in the apprentice system, a change in the mode of living was taking place and with it came a change in design and workmanship: By 1830 America was on the move. There were canals and railroads to take the people from the eastern seaboard to new lands that were being opened in the West. Many things like furniture and silver, which had been made entirely by hand, were being produced, in part at least, by some new and wonderful machine. If you did not care for a plain house, simple furniture, and austere silver, but wanted ornament, it could be turned out cheaply and quickly by the machine. Poor workmanship could also be covered up by the machine. By 1840 in this country, in England, and even on the Continent work was being turned out by the machine that would not have been accepted twenty-five years before.
Although Victoria came to the throne of England in 1837, we cannot blame everything in poor taste upon the Queen. She probably was not amused at many things that happened in her long reign, when the machine ruled the world and design reached a low ebb.
Let us say plainly, however, that there is nothing essentially wrong with machines. They are needed and always will be, but they never have and never will take the place of the skilled hand. Proof of this is readily seen in the work of the many small handicraft shops that have been started all over the country in the last forty years. The finest furniture, silver, and jewelry are made by hand and some handwork must usually be done even on machine products to give a good finish.
But as the nation moved and grew, and machine work supplanted handwork, and railroads and waterways opened new ways to wealth, more people demanded things that looked elegant, even if the workmanship was not of the finest. Furniture got heavier and richer, silver for the great sideboards got larger and was more ornamented. When this big silver was too expensive, the machine offered plated ware that looked just as fine to the untrained eye. Perhaps the best way to explain the nineteenth century is to say it surrendered to mass production.